Christchurch: A Class Quake

Tragically, a major earthquake hit Christchurch on 22 February. Much of the city has been destroyed, including about one-third of the Central Business District. At the time of writing, sadly 166 people have been confirmed dead, with the death toll expected to rise to 200. The quake has caused massive damage, estimated at somewhere between $10 to $20 billion. Possibly 10,000 houses need to be destroyed and 100,000 need to be repaired.

Submitted by Anarchia on April 20, 2011

These distressing details have been covered extensively by the media in a sort of spectacle-driven frenzy. But it hasn’t captured so well the human cost – in destroyed lives, homes, lost jobs, and widespread trauma – costs which cannot be measured. Further, it has neglected how the quake has hit, and will continue to hit, working class people the hardest.

Why has the quake hit people unequally? Why has the quake affected working class people disproportionately? Why have official relief efforts mainly focussed on the central business district, and not devastated working class areas that have been without water, sewerage and electricity? The answer is simply that it was what has been termed a ‘class quake’, and that the government cares more for putting business back into business than for working class people.

Quakes are natural hazards. But the natural event, namely the rupture of tectonic plates, starkly reveals the human-made structural inequalities and class divisions present in capitalist society. Simply put, those with less income and resources are more vulnerable to trigger events such as quakes, and find it harder to recover from them.

This is obvious in places like Haiti, where quakes have killed huge amounts of the urban poor, especially those living in densely populated and poorly constructed shantytowns (which often are located on marginal and more vulnerable land, such as steep hillsides). All up somewhere over 200,000 people died. Yet in Christchurch working class people, although far wealthier than those in Haiti, were still more vulnerable than those higher up the class system.

Capitalism has built unsafe buildings so as to cut costs and maximise profit. Many office and central city workers were highly vulnerable to the quake, as they worked in unsafe high rise buildings built before stricter quake building regulations were brought in during the 1970s for non-residential buildings and in the 1980s for buildings with reinforced concrete. Many lost their lives when their office buildings were destroyed. Additionally, if they were outside during the quake (which hit during lunchtime), they were at risk from falling masonry, buildings and poorly built shop awnings. And in particular, people in Eastern Christchurch, which is a predominantly working class area, have been badly affected. This is because much of Eastern Christchurch is built on poor quality land – such land is cheaper for capital to develop – land that was once alluvial flood plains, or swamps and marshes that have been drained, and thus prone to massive liquefaction after a quake. Much of this land has a loose sandy and silty soil that is below the watertable, and hence during a quake much of the soil is compressed and the water, along with some soil, is forced to the surface. In contrast, areas with clay soils and soil that is above the watertable won’t liquefy. This liquefaction has caused substantial damage to infrastructure, residential properties and to the foundations of homes.

For sure, many in wealthy suburbs, such as the cliff-side suburbs of Sumner and Redcliffs, have been hit just as hard, with many houses destroyed and people killed. Yet these people will generally recover from the quake much easier than working class people in other Eastern suburbs, such as Bexley, New Brighton and Aranui (it should be noted many Eastern suburbs contain a high proportion of Maori and Pacific people, as well as beneficiaries). As Piers Blaikie and others in their interesting book At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, wealthy people are far less at risk from natural hazards because they have many assets, insurance, cash reserves, access to credit, and can hence quickly resume income earning activities after the impact of the hazard. Additionally, they may own land or possess other resources in other locations not affected by the hazard. Working class people in contrast generally have high debt, few if any assets or cash reserves, and find it difficult to access credit, particularly those at the bottom of the class pyramid (such as beneficiaries) – their poverty means they are often considered ‘credit unworthy’. They find it much harder to recover and rebuild.

Even working class people who own a house, which is still reasonably common in Christchurch, and part of the NZ traditional class compromise — a deal whereby a family slaves away for 40-50 years of wage slavery in return for a paltry ¼ acre section and house — can be hit hard because their home is their only major asset. If it is badly damaged (requiring tens of thousands of dollars of repairs) or destroyed, their major asset is simply gone. In contrast, capitalist and ‘middle class’ people often have many other assets, and can afford to repair and rebuild, even if their luxury home in Sumner has fallen down a cliff.

Blaikie forgets to mention the tremendous impact the quake will have on workers, not just working class communities. Thousands will lose their jobs as businesses are shut or layoffs are made (casualised workers seem particularly vulnerable to this), and of those who retain their jobs, they will not have their wages paid until businesses are up and running again (although the government has offered some minimal assistance for this). Furthermore, many face difficulties receiving benefits and special grants from the government. “Many Christchurch people are likely to be suffering post traumatic stress disorder after the quake. This means that they qualify for a Sickness Benefit, rather than the Unemployment Benefit that it would seem that they are being offered,” says Kay Brereton of the Wellington People’s Centre. One-Off Civil Defence payments require people to provide bills proving they live at a residence, which is difficult in a time when tens of thousands have left Christchurch, and difficult too if you are not the bill payer.

A word about the relief effort. While Eastern Christchurch was neglected by officialdom for two weeks after the quake, those suburbs have again seen the ‘spirit of the blitz’ where people have come together to help each other out and meet each other’s immediate needs; this community self-help or mutual aid has provided immense support to people in removing silt, cleaning up, providing water and food, digging toilets and so on. To give some idea of the scale of these efforts, we mention the efforts of the thousands strong ‘Student Volunteer Army’ in cleaning up silt, the ‘Christchurch Baking Army’ in providing free baked goods, ‘Comfort Crusaders’ providing free emergency kits and food, the numerous community based food kitchens, distribution centres and ‘info points’ that have sprouted up (sometimes on people’s front lawns), and free water drops by community groups. Even normally conservative capitalists, namely farmers from North Canterbury, the ‘Farmy Army’, provided relief in the form of helicopter drops of thousands of cooked dinners in East Christchurch. Websites such as the Christchurch Recovery Map and have attempted to coordinate these community based efforts, ‘connecting those in need with those who can help’. All of this has occurred from the bottom up.

Finally, we realise these are generalisations. Some working class areas in Western Christchurch such as Hornby and parts of Halswell, which are built on more solid land, were not as badly affected. However, these people still face job losses, trauma, poor income, the loss of the city centre, and damage to their houses and infrastructure. So overall our analysis holds true: working class people in all parts of Christchurch will generally find it more difficult to recover and rebuild. As capitalist vultures called property developers and their mates in the National Government look forward to rebuilding Christchurch in their own interests and for their own profit, we hope that people put forward a different vision of a city, one where buildings are built safely and soundly for the needs of people and not profit. Capitalism needs, and profits from, destruction. Capitalism kills.